Matjaz Tancic: 3DPRK: Portraits of North Korea at happylucky no.1

Matjaz Tancic, Yu Hyol-Sim, 20, a swimmer at the Munsu Wading Pool in Pyongyang

Given the current political backdrop and the heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea, the photography show currently at happylucky no. 1 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is especially relevant.  Through May 14, the gallery is showing Slovenian photographer Matjaz Tancic’s 3D portraits of North Koreans – farmers, steelworkers, hairdressers, students, waitresses, accordion teachers – in other words, regular people, to the extent that it was possible. The 3D images, which are viewed through old-fashioned cardboard 3D glasses, have a capacity to draw viewers in so they feel as if they’re sharing the same physical space as Tancic’s North Korean subjects. Tancic, who is currently based in Beijing, collaborated with the Beijing-based Koryo Studio, which commissions and sells work by North Korean artists. Koryo Studio also published a book of Tancic’s 3D portraits, complete with yellow viewer box, also called 3DPRK. Photograph interviewed Tancic about the project, via email.

Jean Dykstra: Perhaps the most obvious question is: why did you choose to make these portraits using 3D technology?

Matjaz Tancic: Every time we see images from North Korea, they’re very generalizing. They either show everything as too beautiful, when it comes to propaganda, or else everything is bad, everybody is brainwashed, and we only see soldiers. It’s easy to manipulate the audience when you’re showing masses of nameless, faceless people. I wanted to push it in the opposite direction, and I wanted to introduce the young, old, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, sportsmen, farmers, doctors. I used 3-D because with 3-D you have to engage. First, you have to put on the glasses, and then you go into the same space with them. You are so close to them within this space that you feel almost uncomfortable. You look at them and they look straight back at you, and you try to meet them in a more in-depth way.

JD: How did you get permission to take the photographs you took?

MT: It took eight months to get permission to go to North Korea, and it was not always easy to get a variety of people, because wherever you go, you always have a local guide. I deliberately selected places where I knew there would be more people, like amusement parts, swimming pools, schools, train stations, big public places. I wanted to have the biggest variety possible, from all walks of life.

Matjaz Tancic, Won Il-myong, 38, a furnace worker at the Chollima Steelworks

JD: Were there pictures you were not allowed to take?

MT: The main rule was not to photograph soldiers or construction sites. I had two guides who were my assistants and translators, and we trusted each other, and I didn’t want to make their lives miserable because of my ego, pushing for something that I wanted to photograph that I knew would be a problem.

JD: In the photograph of the steelworker, you can almost feel the heat from the furnace when you put the 3D glasses on. Can you tell me about that picture?

MT: That was a personal victory to even get to that factory. It’s not touristic place, it’s deep in the countryside. There were more than 50,000 or 60,000 workers there, and they brought me this tall, beautiful guy to photograph.

JD: Has the work been shown in North Korea?

MT: Yes, that was another personal success for me, because being a photographer is one of the most ego-centric jobs. You take and take and you rarely give back to the people you’re taking from. I always made prints of the photographs I took and gave them to my guides to give to the people I photographed, but we also organized a photography exhibition in a public space, not an embassy, so it was accessible.

JD: What do you want people to take away from this show?

MT: Simply to see that North Koreans are not brainwashed robots, but that they are people with lives, occupations, worries, feelings. And I didn’t know that’s what it would be like, but once I got there, I wanted to show it.